Citizen Led Forensics: DNA & data-banking as technologies of disruption-a novel way to learn and intervene in the search for the disappeared in Mexico

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Anthropology


Governmental institutions in Mexico have officially recognised 121,683 violent deaths in the period between 2006- 2013. During the same period around 27,000 disappearances occurred, and approximately 15,000 bodies remain unidentified, as there are no national databases in the country. In Mexico, distrust in governmental authorities is the norm, since the practice of forensic science has been opaque, and has sometimes been used to cover the tracks of the perpetrators of grave crimes. The inimical response of the government to this humanitarian crisis, has repeatedly shown that the problem is not one that can simply be solved by the construction or strengthening of forensic technical capacities, but rather the absence of due investigation and diligence that is related to the existing ties between public institutions and organised crime, as well as other normalised practices of corruption.

Our project will explore new forms of citizenship related to the use of forensic science in the search for the missing in Mexico, and will also provide invaluable insights into the disruptive dimensions of Forensic Science and DNA profiling. Through Participatory Action Research (PAR), we wish to explore what would happen if forensic techniques (including DNA) were to be placed in the hands of the relatives of the disappeared, or in non-governmental forensic experts, and/or in interested citizens in Mexico. The project aims to create the first citizen-led Forensic DNA database as a way of positively intervening in the humanitarian crisis currently lived in Mexico.The citizen-led Forensic database will be designed as a mobile and PAR device, articulated through civil society organisations of relatives of the disappeared, already partnered with the project. The project will make DNA swab kits available for 1,500 people (approx. 500 Mexican families), accompanied by a clear set of instructions on how to collect DNA from cheek swabbing, as well as from the personal belongings of the missing person. In the same DNA Kit we would ask the participating families to include written accounts of their case, their experience with forensic investigations (if any), and personal narratives of what they have gone through since their relative(s) disappeared.

Academic literature, mostly centred in EU and the US, solely links the use of forensic databases with state surveillance and issues of privacy. In this project we aim to move the debate beyond these common tropes to explore how citizen-led forensic databases can become a tool for reparation and truth finding. Our project breaks with traditional (state-centric) ways of researching about violence and disappearance, since it surpasses the boundaries between victims' claims for justice and the experts in charge of providing 'truth' about the missing. It is also innovative as it brings together biogenetic and social research; thus providing a tool to open novel avenues of academic inquiry, as well as grounded insights for humanitarian and political intervention. Regardless if our citizen-led forensic project succeeds or fails, our research has the potential to have a truly transformative and global impact, considering the fact that we can help to provide new pathways for forensic research and intervention, in the mass atrocities of today and of the future.

Planned Impact

Local and international non-governmental organisations constituted by relatives of the disappeared in Latin America will certainly be interested in our research. Our activities will be of relevance for all those agencies and groups that are interested in aiding and understanding the scientific and social processes of forensic identification in post-disaster and complex violence scenarios.
These users will benefit from our activities in two ways: first, through engagement in our meetings and workshops, where their views and concerns will be constantly included in an ongoing research design and execution. Second, through the bilingual (English/Spanish) project web pages that will include summaries of our research findings, useful links and debate forums on the progress of the citizen-led DNA database. This information could be used to address questions of forensic interest in the search for truth and justice, as well as informative resources for relevant policymakers. The various NGOs collaborating with our research efforts, such as NAR (Nuestra Aparente Rendición), which tracks the death toll in Mexico, and organisations of relatives of the disappeared such as Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, FUNDEM, FUUNDEC, NAR, CADHAC,and Movimento por la Justicia y Dignidad, will be directly involved and benefitted by the citizen-led forensic database and the research project. The PI has already secured agreements for cooperating with a number of NGOs dealing with the question of violence and disappearance in Mexico, in order to build the citizen-led biobank for victim identification.
Governments and international specialist agencies such as the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Europe-Aid, US-Aid, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, will also benefit from our independent exploration of forensic science, the experiment to create a citizen-led DNA and case database, as well as its impact on the delivery of truth and reparation for the victims of violence.
The media (especially science-oriented media), that have a direct interest in educating and exploring the public impact of science in the identification of victims, are likely to be interested in our research findings. The same applies to forensic investigators (e.g. Mexican Institutes of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences), who have interests in links between genetics law and the public. Our aim in communicating with these target audiences is to raise the profile of the project and to feed into debates about how forensic science might relate to notions of reparation and truth finding regarding the identification of missing persons. We seek to raise awareness of the ways science can shape ideas about these matters and to serve as an observatory of scientific, legal and forensic practice in victim identification and nation building processes in Mexico and Colombia.
Our strategy to assure that we can make the most of our project, is to create a free access executive summary of our main findings to be distributed in social networks, policy making institutes and in our bilingual webpage through electronic means. In addition, a wide variety of people will be invited to these open sessions, press releases will also be prepared prior to the workshops and, whenever possible, team members will seek to publish brief pieces, interviews, etc. in local media outlets. We plan to design a specific section of our project website in which key documents that contain useful and theoretical information will be available; for example, summaries of findings, discussions of relevant themes, useful resources and links, etc.The strategic direction of impact is the responsibility of the PI and the COI, but the project workshops, planning meetings, and executive summaries will also be facilitated by the hired Staff in the local contexts.


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Cruz-Santiago A (2021) Biorecuperation, the epidemic of violence and COVID-19 in Mexico in Human Remains and Violence

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Schwartz Marin E (2018) Antigone's forensic DNA database: Forensic technologies and the search for the disappeared in Mexico in Athenea Digital. Revista de pensamiento e investigación social

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Schwartz-Marin E (2016) Forensic civism: articulating science, DNA and kinship in contemporary Mexico and Colombia in Human Remains and Violence: An Interdisciplinary Journal

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Schwartz-Marin E (2017) Genomic Justice and Imagined Communities. in The Hastings Center report

Title A history of Disappearance in 3 act 
Description A brief history of the way in which forensics and citizens have fought repressive governments and organised crime in Latin America in their search for truth. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact I still don't know if this has any wider impact in policy of practice, but has been widely distributed by NGOS and the people participating in Citizen-Led Forensics 
Title Didactic videos to learn how to collect your own DNA sample 
Description It is a didactic video explaining why it is important to take your own DNA sample and participate in Citizen-Led Forensics 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact It taught hundred of relatives of disappeared persons how to take their own DNA sample to build an independent forensic biobank 
Title Introduction and explanation of Citizen-Led Forensics 
Description It was the video that explained the motives, funding and purposes of Citizen-Led Forensics 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2014 
Impact It was a tool for the people that invested resources and time in our project to convince other relatives of the disappeared to participate and collaborate in the creation of the forensic database and DNA repository, available at: 
Title Promise: A song for the disappeared 
Description A song based on the experiences of the relatives of disappeared persons in Mexico. 
Type Of Art Composition/Score 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact The song was downloaded more than 750 times the first month, since it was released and has become the anthem for many organisations looking for their disappeared relatives in Mexico. 
Title Silent Witness Season Finale (2017) Awakening 1 and 2 
Description We helped as script advisor to the final Episode of Silent Witness Season Finale, in 2017 inspired by our Citizen-Led Forensics project. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Our idea and project was showcased for an audience of 8 million people in the UK, and this had a massive impact in making more people aware of the massive human rights crisis currently lived in Mexico. 
Description We found that it is feasible and possible to create forensic alternatives to the state centric narrative of forensic humanitarianism, that by being supposedly neutral reinforces the role of the government agencies as the only legitimate source of authority to deal with mass atrocities and protracted conflict. This might appear as obvious and necessary at first sight, but in countries such as Mexico, where 98% of crimes go un-investigated and unpunished, such assumptions are not only wrong but help to systematise bureaucratic abuses of power, dereliction of duty and privileges the interests of the powerful elites that have no interest in investigating crimes, either because it affects their reputation, they are fearful, complicit or simply lack the interest or tools to do their job. One of the critiques our project faced was that it was not sustainable and did not follow the established protocols, so far the project has survived more than 7 changes in staff and overall strategic lead in the federal government, thus de fact making it more enduring than the existing framework to search for the disappeared, that was recently revamped by the arrival of the new Mexican president and his team of trusted collaborators. They are many more exciting theoretical and methodological findings ( not to talk about their potential impact for the life of many citizens living amongst protracted conflict) but we would invite our readers to inform themselves by examining our papers.

Our Citizen-Led Science system is beginning to take a life of its own, and we are working on the next generation of citizen-led projects and technologies.
Exploitation Route I can answer this with two examples, check our two new project: Mobile Solutions Against the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic and ESRC transformative 2018-20 Data Justice in Mexico's Multiveillant Society.
(Data Justice & Multiveillance, ESRC Transformative 2018-2020)
(Mobile Solutions Against the Mexican Kidnapping Epdiemic, Newton Fund/ESRC, 2016-2019, with Conor O'Reilly-Leeds)
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy

Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software)



Democracy and Justice

Security and Diplomacy

Description In 2014 I secured an ESRC transformative research grant (£198,143) as a principal investigator for the project entitled "Citizen-Led Forensics" based at Durham Anthropology. I directed a team of 5 researchers, and together with relatives of the disappeared in Mexico, we formed a pioneering citizen-led organisation in charge of governing and managing DNA samples and a forensic database. My research has attracted vast public attention since Mexicans are currently dealing with more than 27,000 disappearances in a context characterised by the complicity of authorities and organised crime; evidenced by the 869 families registered in our database, and the 440 DNA collection kits that have been distributed all around Mexico. The 123 media pieces covering our project around the world through the BBC, Al Jazeera, and CNN (amongst others), provide an audio- visual testimony of the momentum our participatory action research activities gained in 2014-15: for a brief example watch: The impact of my work is shown by its influence in shaping legislation in the Mexican congress, but it is also evidenced by the hundreds of families of the disappeared that are still making their forensic DNA database grow each month despite the fact that the project ended a year ago. NGOS are now opening new technologies spheres of independent citizen-science such as drone flights to look for mass graves, as well as new grass root techniques to locate bodies, on top of this the grass root organisation in our project are now making deal with the Mexican state to compare their databases. The first Citizen-Led Exhumation, The Case of Brenda Damaris Solis in Monterrey Nuevo Leon- a snapshot of one of our participatory research highlights : The recurrent narrative of the authorities in Mexico - reported to us via the relatives of the disappeared - criminalises the disappeared: 'if something happened to him/her, they must had been involved in something' or 'who knows who they were working with?' Our interviews repeatedly reveal cases in which the abuse of authority - commonly in the form of relatives being asked for briberies in order to be told basic things about the their loved one's case (something that is already part of their legal rights) or to examine evidence - is the norm. For example, Juany (mother) and the Solis family had been looking for Brenda Damaris Solis (daughter) for more than two years following a car accident. The car was left on the side of the road and, although it presented various bullet holes, no blood or other biological samples were visible, and the only trace that human bodies were once riding the car was a bump on the front window. The lack of both evidence and information led the family to believe there was something suspicious about the case. Desperate and looking for answers, Juany threw herself into a hunt for information regarding her daughter, and when visiting the mass grave the federal police almost put her and the Solis family in jail; after keeping them captive for some hours she was warned not to snoop in mass graves, but a week later she was handed the human remains of her daughter. However, Brenda had disappeared just three months ago, and the skeletal remains that appeared in the le had no so tissue and, according to the pathologist, instead corresponded to the traits of someone nine to twelve months dead. On 10 September 2014, Juany and a group of activists, journalists and fellow relatives of disappeared persons were witnesses to the exhumation of what the Mexican State and the Nuevo Leon Government claimed were the human remains of Brenda Damaris Solis. In light of such events, a communication campaign was produced by FUNDENL, one of the most important CSOs comprising relatives of the disappeared.The Solis family - with the help of other mothers and Letty 'Roy Rivera' Hidalgo, the leader of FUNDENL - devised a plan to break the Mexican State's monopoly over forensic knowledge and the governance of human remains. Using a legal figure contained in the new law that each family would be allowed access to independent peritos (forensic experts) if they pay the costs themselves. FUNDENL organised a high profile event with media personnel, forensic experts (independent teams from Peru and Mexico) and professionals coming from the Mexican NGO Gobernanza Forense Ciudadana and the ESRC funded project 'Citizen-Led Forensics', to create a new type of forum: the country's first structure for citizen led exhumations, as well as the first case of an independent forensic DNA database in Mexico - governed, created and managed by relatives of the disappeared. Sadly, a couple of months afterwards the DNA results confirmed Brenda was dead, however since it seems that police men killed her, and there is no will from authorities to search for them, and bring them to justice, the Solis family is now in a journey, accompanied by other relatives of the disappeared, searching for justice and trying to make those responsible to pay for the crimes. New grass-roots forensics practices: the project created a leading-edge citizen organisation in which relatives of the disappeared (instead of State sanctioned experts) are in charge of governing and managing a forensic database with DNA in Mexico, where more than 37,000 disappearances have occurred since 2006. In a context characterised by the complicity of authorities and organised crime, our project was able to involve 890 families, distributing and analysing more than 440 DNA collection kits. Effectively constituting the only non-state forensic database in the world. The database slowly grows each month, despite the funds for the project ended more than two years ago. Last year the NGO in charge of the biobank won €100,000 for its involvement in 'Citizen-Led Forensics', allowing them to keep searching for the disappeared. The grass-root forensic practices we developed have been reproduced, enhanced and adapted by NGOS and universities in Mexico. New possibilities: the legal framework we drafted with families served them to challenge state abuse of power and push new legislation. Moreover, one NGO in Monterrey Nuevo Leon, used the independent DNA services of the project, and their own knowledge of the law to make an independent exhumation, which confirmed the identity of a young woman killed by police forces, and buried in a clandestine mass grave. New research agendas: the governance model of this project is now being improved to combat kidnapping in Mexico. In the international arena: this research breaks new ground by building citizen science capacities rather than state capacities, as is the current practices of organisation such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP). Some of which are now starting to think seriously about citizen-led alternatives as a way of forensic intervention in conflict scenarios. Art: our research, inspired the closing episode of BBC One Drama Silent Witness (The Awakening I and II, 2017), and the qualitative interviews were the basis of a theatre production in London 2015.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural


Description Creation of the social movement 'Ciencia Forense Ciudadana'
Geographic Reach South America 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact We transformed the practice of dozens of NGOs and even the Mexican government, who engaged with our national independent database and DNA repository which is now in the hands of relatives of the disappeared in Mexico, and who have registered more than 750 cases of disappearance in Mexico. With this database they have challenged and made visible hundreds of cases of disappearance, that were not recognized by the government, and they have also given DNA analysis to hundreds of families around the country. Nowadays they are lobbying a law to regulate forensic biobank in Mexico, including their own which is the only forensic database and DNA biobank governed by the relatives of the disappeared.
Description Data Justice in Mexico's Multiveillant Society: How big data is reshaping the struggle for human rights and political freedoms
Amount £202,437 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/R009945/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2018 
End 09/2020
Description Dutch Human Rights- Tulip Award
Amount € 100,000 (EUR)
Organisation Government of the Netherlands 
Sector Public
Country Netherlands
Start 12/2017 
End 12/2020
Description RCUK-CONACYT
Amount £725,000 (GBP)
Funding ID Newton RCUK-CONACYT - Mobile Solutions to the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic: Beyond Elite Counter-Measures Towards Citizen-Led Innovation 
Organisation Research Councils UK (RCUK) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2016 
End 04/2019
Description Shuttleworth Foundation open call
Amount $5,000 (USD)
Organisation Shuttleworth Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country South Africa
Start 09/2016 
End 06/2017
Title Citizen Led registry of the disappeared 
Description It is a database created by the relatives of the disappeared with basic forensic data, economic data related to disappearance and also includes the perpetrators of crime if known by the relatives of the disappeared. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact It has been used to produce descriptive statistics used by the victims of warfare to better understand and gain and independent knowledge about the disappeared in Mexico. 
Description Collaboration Agreement with UAM Xochimilco 
Organisation Metropolitan Autonomous University
Country Mexico 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We organised an international conference inviting key notes speakers including forensic specialist, politicians, NGOs leaders and various leaders of grass roots movements from around the country, and relatives of the disappeared including the governors of citizen-led forensics to a three day series of events.
Collaborator Contribution They provided transport, infrastructure, printing costs and installations to conduct the event. On top of this they also contributed with dedicated administrative support.
Impact A description of the events and conferences is available in their webpage as well as a report on the event, the collaboration broke in 2017, as a result of their refusal to honour our agreements as partners in the new ESRC-Newton Fund Research (Mobile Solutions Against the Mexican Kidnapping Epidemic). This resulted in a loss of £306K, for the project and the jeopardy of the reputation of our work.
Start Year 2015
Description Al Jazeera Coverage of 'Citizen-Led Forensics': with mass media (Al Jazeera news) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A 10 minute short TV programme about Citizen-Led Forensics, produced by Al Jazeera, and presented by Adam Rayney- November 2014:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Citizen-Led Forensics Project web-page 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The project webpage was widely used by diverse audience, designed as an attractive and easy to use medium of communication it also provided the first port of contact between families of the disappeared governing and participating in citizen-led forensics and interested audiences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
Description Invitation to speak at the International Committee of the Red Cross - Missing persons Global Community 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact "Our Hour" is a one -hour webinar series hosted each month by ICRC's Missing Persons Global Community. I was invited to an expert panel to talk about how families of the missing take the search for their loved ones into their own hands: they collect and analyse victims' records and DNA data, keep detailed records of the disappearance, analyse phone records, and interview local communities, among other activities. My talk highlighted how these citizen-led forensic practices are the bedrock from which forensic humanitarianism has emerged.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
Description Mexico: A mother's search for her missing son 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact I was part of the interviewees in the Radio broadcast in BBC world service, exploring the life and troubles that mothers of disappeared youngsters looking for their loved ones have to face in Mexico. I was interviewed with Letty Roy, who was a governor of Citizen-Led Forensics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014,2015
Description Promise: A song for the disappeared 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact We created a song for people to engage with Citizen-Led Forensics and they downloaded it more than 750 times the first month of its appearance from the project webpage.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Silent Witness- Closing Episode (Finale) 20th Anniversary 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact The BBC one aired their final episode for the Silent Witness series titled 'Awakening' part one and two, with more than 6.6 million viewers- the script was based on our work in Mexico on Citizen-Led Forensics, and we advised previous to the production of the series as well. This was especially interesting because it presented the project in fictional terms, but produced quite a reaction in twitter amongst many viewers who could not believe so many thousands of Mexicans were missing, nor that the families had to organise themselves to search for them, create their own DNA and eve spot the mass graves to uncover the atrocities committed by the State and organised crime. This was just aired recently, but I think its impact has already been felt with many colleagues that watched it and told me about it, similarly during conferences when they tell me they saw something similar during Silent Witness.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017